THE PURPOSE OF TRANSIT: Neither Reform Nor Revenue are the Needed Starting Point

May 22, 2015

It’s now semi-official – everyone agrees that the MBTA needs both reform and revenue.  No one says (publicly) that the current T and Commuter Rail budget is too big for its mission.  And that’s where the agreement ends – with the question of what is the MBTA’s mission, vision, and values:  what exactly are we trying to achieve?

Is our transit system a public mobility service for everyone (including the elderly, disabled, and young) for all types of uses (commuting, shopping, socializing) across all parts of the region (or perhaps the entire state) or are particular components more important than the rest?  Similarly, while increased customer service is a generally-agreed upon priority, which customers should get what level of what kinds of service at what cost?  And in the larger scale, is the T only about transportation, and should it be run to maximize its operation’s internal cost-efficiency regardless of “off-budget” externalities, or is it about a broad range of social goals and public benefits – in the Frontier Group’s words “[fulfilling] a transportation need at lower public expense than the available alternatives (e.g., adding another lane to the Big Dig),…deliver[ing] public benefits that exceed the costs (e.g., reducing air pollution or curbing congestion), or…meet[ing] a pressing and vital societal need (e.g., providing mobility to the disabled)”.   Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s recent Globe OpEd added another dimension: “The cities identified as having the highest chances for a person moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of income across generations are the cities ranked as having the best public transportation.  Through better transportation, American cities can provide opportunities for millions to escape poverty.”

At the recent Legislative hearing on MBTA reform, Governor Baker said that this winter’s collapse showed that the T was vital to our regional economy and explicitly stated that he had no interest in privatizing the MBTA, in laying off Carmen Union members, or raising fares beyond many people’s ability to pay.  This was a welcome public statement, a positive opening for future discussion.  But it can’t be the final word.

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QUESTIONING COMPLETE STREETS: Having the Courage of Our Vision and Values

May 14, 2015

Having a vision of the kind of city you want is an essential foundation for purposeful and effective governance.  Some cities do a coherent overall process, such as Somerville’s SomerVision or Boston’s forthcoming Imagine Boston 2030.  Cambridge has constructed its vision piecemeal, through policies around a variety of quantitative and qualitative issues.   No matter the process, these days the resulting vision statements almost all aim for a combination of livability, stainability, prosperity, and diversity with the specifics addressing things like schools, housing, services, open space, and mobility.  For example, in terms of mobility, SomerVision (slogan: “An Exceptional Place to Live, Work, Play, and Raise a Family”) sets a goal of having “50% of New Trips via Transit, Bike, or Walking.”

The most powerful, but hardest to really accept, aspect of creating a vision involves making choices – a public a statement that the city’s residents prefers one type of future over another, one direction over the multitude of other possibilities.  Like growing up, having a vision implies accepting that you can’t have it all – that achieving your top priorities means you can’t do something else, and most importantly that equalizing things means that whatever was previously getting more than its fair share will have to get a little less.

But, as most adults know, having a vision – a goal — is only the starting point for creating a future.  Making it real requires the courage of your convictions, the strength to take actions that express those values, and a willingness to accept the consequences of choosing one thing over another.  Checking the facts as you go is also important.  Maturity and perhaps wisdom comes from basing your actions on both values and evidence.

Over the past decade, cities and town have made enormous progress and gained visible benefits from movement towards a more equitable vision of transportation modality:

– giving equal weight to the needs of walkers, bicyclists, and bus or trolley riders as to car drivers (Complete Streets, Safe Routes To School),

— slowing down traffic to improve driver and everyone else’s safety (Traffic Calming, Vision Zero), and

— changing to more market-driven parking pricing to increase availability and improve circulation to retail stores.

All these have contributed to the astonishing growth of bicycling, the reduction of injury rates, the revived vitality of local business districts, and perhaps even to the slowed increase in childhood obesity.  In New York City, overall traffic injuries dropped 20%, pedestrian injuries were down 22%, and there was a reduction of bike crashes with injuries of 18 percent even though the number of trips increased 108%.

Not surprisingly, however, there has been pushback.  Parking is a common triggering issue.  Neighbors fearful of increased on-street competition for space oppose making housing more affordable by reducing the amount of on-site parking spaces developers are required to build.  Drivers blame increased congestion at key intersections and major roads on the diversion of road capacity to bike lanes.  And, most touchy of all, critics claim that making roads less car-centric makes it harder for emergency vehicles to get through, endangering us all – a question made credible after the road-narrowing snow disasters of last winter. For example, a proposed Cambridge City Council Policy Order raises several of these issues — the “Whereas” sections cite concerns that traffic calming “in particular the narrowing of major arteries used to enter and exit Cambridge…has directly led to a sharp increase in congestion, bottlenecks and motor vehicle accidents; and….presents a safety hazard… [because it] does not permit fire trucks and other large emergency vehicles to gain access….”

In several towns, these complaints are being echoed by local politicians.  In some cases this is a sincere effort to clarify the impact of recent policy changes on road use. In some cases it may be just a grandstand pandering for votes from the diminishing number of car-centric commuters. But it seems most likely that the critics really believe that we’re on the wrong track and that the questioning and demands for data are really an effort to lay the groundwork for a broader re-examination of where transportation policy is going – an effort to find some problem with multi-modal design that can be used to discredit the entire idea.

Fortunately, these attacks will fail because they ignore both the growing clarity of municipal values and the factual evidence.

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JUMP STARTING COMPLETE STREETS: Focusing on Kids (and others) When Progress Slows

May 4, 2015

Every street should be safe for walking and bicycling.  This is an essential component of the Complete Streets design philosophy that has emerged in recent years as the “new normal” for roads – although the gap between policy and practice often remains wide.   Because the core issue is mobility, Advocates compliment this “everywhere for everyone” approach with concerted efforts to create seamless networks of sidewalks and low-traffic-stress routes (paths and protected bike lanes or cycle tracks) along major “desire lines” connecting most residential areas with most schools, parks, recreational, shopping, and work areas.   Or at least a set of “key routes” across town.   Many Advocacy groups put considerable effort into sketching out these networks and routes – trying to combine directness with safety, beauty with speed, ubiquity with practicality.  To paraphrase a slogan from the Greenway Links Initiative I’ve been working on in the Metro Area:  Big enough to be inspiring, simple enough to be understandable.

However, the difficulty of getting cities to adopt the proactive, grand vision approach to transportation planning and road maintenance required for the creation of such networks forces most Advocacy groups to fall back on pragmatism.   Every time a street is repaved or restriped; every time a developer wants a curb cut; every time state or federal transportation funds become available – grab the opportunity to push for another, often disconnected stretch of improved sidewalks, redone crosswalks and intersections, bike lanes (regular or protected) or paths.   Having those draft network and key route maps helps focus Advocates efforts on those locations that will make the biggest contribution towards the ultimate goal.  But the process is still rather haphazard, catch-as-can, ending up feeling rather incoherent.  And sometimes things go nowhere.

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OUT OF THE SNOW, INTO THE PARKING MESS

March 16, 2015

Parking is a problem. When it snows it’s a nightmare. We start looking around, getting frustrated, maybe nasty. There seem to be parking spots everywhere except where we want to go. Parking is the explosive trap door of community transportation meetings – anything that reduces the number of spots anywhere evokes outcry. This winter’s climate craziness has pushed people from frustration into pathology — angry notes, slashed tires, off-road rage. Forgive us, neighbors, we have space saved.

At a recent meeting of the LivableStreets Alliance Advocacy Committee, Board member Charlie Denison led a brainstorming session about how the current parking situation in Boston isn’t really benefiting anyone, especially drivers themselves. The ideas range from snow-related strategies to general management of residential and commercial parking to long-term ways to reduce the overall demand. Just as the snow finally forced state leaders to acknowledge the desperate condition of the MBTA, maybe we can use this crisis to begin addressing the parking problem as well in both residential and commercial areas, by both addressing parking policies and the city-design need for it. Here’s my take on what came up during the brainstorm…

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PARKWAYS MOVING FORWARD: DCR is Not The Highway Department

January 20, 2015

It’s a pleasure to be able to praise a government agency: civil servants who try to live up to their public service mission are over-worked and underpaid relative to private sector peers – and always under appreciated! It’s particularly a pleasure to praise the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR), a woefully underfunded agency whose roadway department has been exasperatingly difficult to work with in the past.   Which is why we have to hope that newly inaugurated Governor Baker’s announcement of a freeze on hiring and contracting will not derail DCR’s historic commitment to create an updated Master conceptual Plan for how their metro-region parkways can reclaim their Olmstedian heritage and be once again made more park-like and more bike-and-pedestrian-friendly — as well as estimates of what it would cost to properly operate such a system.

However, even in the midst of the freeze and while the Agency waits to hear who will be appointed to be its next Commissioner, there should be no delay in beginning to fulfill the promise to also make DCR’s prioritization and decision-making processes better able to incorporate community and stakeholder suggestions. The newly formed Urban Paths and Parkways Advisory Committee (UPPAC) is an obvious way to draw on the expertise of people who often know more about both local needs and national best-practices than DCR’s own too-small and over-burdened road engineering staff.

In addition, even if budget constraints slow down DCR’s recent string of successful capital projects, the Agency should move forward on its decision to re-think its approach to Parkway maintenance – incorporating the new vision into repaving and striping is a low-cost way of making meaningful improvements even when funding for big project is unavailable.

There is a palpable enthusiasm among people around the region at the prospect of a full, safe network of Greenways reaching out from the urban core to the entire metro area. Although DCR’s new direction was announced in the final days of the Patrick Administration little action has occurred. The incoming state leaders can easily take over and treat them as their own.   And if they do, they will find a lot of people eager to work with them.

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OLYMPIC OPPORTUNITY? — Region Gains Only If We Demand the Benefits First

January 12, 2015

The best and perhaps only argument for holding the 2024 Summer Olympics in Boston (and Cambridge) is that the deadlines and international media scrutiny will force us – meaning city, state, and federal governments as well as local universities – to make the infrastructure investments that we already know are needed but that are unlikely to occur given current budget pressures. The promise is that most of the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on a “car-free” Olympics will be used for upgraded public transportation and walking/bicycling facilities, for expanded student dormitories around local colleges and family-sized affordable housing, and general landscape improvements.

What if it could be so? (Full disclosure: I’d like to have one of the promised improvements be the Greenway Links project – a seamless network of walking and bicycling corridors for recreation and travel by people of all ages and abilities – that I’ve been working on for the past few years.)

FISCAL BLACK HOLE

Unfortunately, there are a lot more believable anti-Olympics arguments. Despite Mayor Walsh’s scheduling of a series of public meetings, the arrogant and secretive process so far by an elite group of self-interested corporate giants makes it hard to believe either that we’ll get to know everything they’ve got up their sleeves or that they will incorporate any but the most superficial public input suggestions.

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COMMONWEALTH AVENUE: Grand Boulevard, Dangerous Street

January 6, 2015

Stretching from the Public Garden out to Weston, Commonwealth Avenue meanders past sculptured medians, historic parks, heartbreaking hills, ponds and rivers, and an enormous number of residences and businesses. Although various crossings are frustratingly congested, in general the number of cars has been steadily dropping while the number of trolley passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and runners has been steadily increasing. The busiest sections are the least fancy: the Mass Ave. crossing, Kenmore Square and the BU corridor, Packards corner to around Warren Street. The BU bridge area is the thickest of all with huge numbers of rushing students, growing cohorts of cyclists, and frustrated car drivers trying to squeeze through the spaghetti mess from Longwood Medical Area to Storrow or (via Cambridge) the Mass Pike. Much of the rest of Comm Ave has relatively light (and therefore, because of the invitingly wide lanes, fast) car traffic.

Comm. Ave has been undergoing periodic renovations and re-inventions almost from the day the first luxurious Back Bay section was built in the mid-1800s. The straight Kenmore to Packards Corner section came later in the century and the curvy section up to the elegant Chestnut Hill Reservoir came near the end of the 1800s based on a landscaped Olmsted design, eventually linking up with a fancy boulevard in Newton. In the early 1900s the street cars were added to promote development, today’s Green Line. And from the 1950s onward an increasing amount of the huge width has been devoted to cars – moving, turning, and parking (as well as purchasing, fixing, refueling).   In the words of Allston activist, Matt Danish, (drawing on the writings of Bill Marchione published at http://bahistory.org) the city made the road more car friendly by “cutting down more trees and laying asphalt over even more portions of the remaining grass mall. Large parking areas were created near Harvard Ave, taking the place of much of the remaining parkland. At Warren Street, an entirely new motorway was cut into the grassy side of the hill, and westbound traffic diverted across the tracks at a strange angle that persists to this day: as anyone familiar with that intersection can attest. Later, a fence was erected down the middle of the MBTA reservation, literally splitting the Allston community in two.”

Each of the changes set the tone of the Avenue for decades afterwards. Today, we’re just emerging from the “let’s make it a highway” epoch. What comes next will help define not only this historic corridor but the Walsh Administration’s transportation vision and the relationship they see between roads and the kind of city Boston will become.

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WALSH ADMINISTRATION NEEDS A TRANSPORTATION MAP: Which Way On Comm. Ave. Design?

December 15, 2014

Mayor Marty Walsh visibly cares about helping underserved communities. And he is aggressively promoting the continuing building boom and accompanying (construction) jobs, as expressed in his statement to the Chamber of Commerce that “we hit the ground running…in development, education, housing, public health, and infrastructure.”  Unfortunately, it appears that the Mayor currently includes transportation as just a part of “infrastructure”, rather than a distinct critical element of city policy –streets and transportation are treated simply as extensions of the more important “building blocks” listed in his speech.

However, leverage also moves in the other direction: a city’s transportation systems set the context for and unleash energy in land use, job creation, and neighborhood improvement. Repeated studies show that both walkability and bikeability promote business growth, resident satisfaction, and public health.  Walsh’s recent promotion of transit-oriented development as key to the development of affordable housing, as well as his cooperation in branding the Red Line as a “Life Science Corridor”, are tacit acknowledgements of this relationship. And it’s true that certain stand-alone issues have gotten attention: late night bus service for downtown businesses, emergency fixes for the Seaport’s entry/exit mess, and the inevitable neighborhood complaints about parking.   But this is not a holistic vision. So far, his senior staff have not treated transportation as its own systemic entry-point for urban issues and quality of life.

POSITIVE SIGNS

A more holistic approach may emerge from Walsh’s promise to have transportation staff walk through every neighborhood noting problems. And, following a recommendation of his Transition Team, Walsh has appointed an Advisory Committee charged with the development of a “Boston Urban Mobility Plan”. (Full disclosure: LivableStreets has a representative on that committee.) Currently, however, this is simply a two-year process of soliciting public input rather than a commitment to action. So far, none of this yet adds up to a vision capable of generating policies and action that leverage transportation spending into better lives for all Boston residents and commuters.

In the meantime, Boston’s award-winning Complete Streets Guidelines have not been officially adopted as policy, although (fortunately) there are some staff people who are still trying to integrate its state-of-the-art good ideas into road designs. The slow-down is even more pronounced in the once thriving effort to make Boston a “world class city for bicycling” – which is often the opening wedge for improvements for pedestrians and transit users as well. The city’s Bicycle Network Plan is no longer referenced, much less used as a guide for street work. This despite the admittance by senior Walsh staffers that bicycle advocates were one of the most organized, visible, and vocal constituents of the mayoral election. According to the Boston Cyclists Union newsletter, “Outside of the addition of paint to a few locations such as Cambridge St. in Allston, and the groundbreaking new truck sideguards ordinance pushed by the Mayor himself, the city’s progress on bike safety has slowed significantly in 2014. Public meetings on and talk of the cycletrack around the Public Garden have evaporated. The plan for the first contraflow lane on Hemenway Street in the Fenway neighborhoods has been shelved without notice. A bike lane set to be added to a key connection for South Boston residents–the W. 4th St. Bridge–has been put on hold.” We can only hope that the recent bike ride that Mayor Walsh took with people from the Cyclists Union, Bikes Not Bombs, LivableStreets, and the Roxbury/Dorchester neighborhood signals increased interest in this issue.

Ironically, the most powerful current inducement for improvement in non-car transportation – subway, trolley, bus, bicycling, and walking – comes from the controversial effort to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston. The Boston 2024 Olympic Committee is seeking to distinguish its bid and keep taxpayer costs down by describing their vision as a “car free” event – based on the assumption that city and state governments will construct nearly all of the proposed non-car-focused transportation improvements listed in various planning documents and bond authorization bills.

REDUCING THE COMMON WEALTH

Transportation’s current low priority within the Walsh Administration is shown most clearly in the lack of top-level vision and leadership given to the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) and the Department of Public Works (DPW). Though Walsh committed to filling all cabinet positions by year’s end, there is no public evidence of any progress in searches for either new departmental Commissioners or for the cabinet-level Director who is supposed to be in charge of both. So both agencies have temporary Acting Commissioners left over from the Menino era.

The leadership vacuum has resulted in internal maneuverings to protect department turf and the individualizing of design approaches – whomever was once assigned a project holds on and does it his own way. One of the most painful examples of this lack of coherence has been the conflicting plans and different public input process for different sections of Commonwealth Avenue – a problem exacerbated by Boston University’s and it’s consultant’s commitment to an out-of-date, car-centric perspective on safety.

Everyone agrees that Comm. Ave. desperately needs improvement.   It’s got the highest number of pedestrians and bicyclists of any road in the city, along with congestion-causing numbers of trucks and cars, and the slowest trolley system in the urban area. However, the sections of this extremely busy street being designed by the BTD for the BU Bridge to Packards Corner blocks (aka Phase 2A) are following very different public-input process and incorporating very different design philosophies than the sections being designed by the DPW covering Packards Corner to Warren/Kelton Street (aka Phases 3 & 4).  Ironically, given DPW’s past reputation as being hostile to anything that would impede car movement, the DPW now seem much more responsive to public suggestion and more progressive in their willingness to incorporate multi-modal facilities than the left-over BTD leadership.

BTD MIS-SETPS

The Boston Transportation Department, under its current temporary leadership, has flagrantly violated its own public-input protocols.   There was no “concept-stage” opportunity for suggestions, a total lack of response to the written suggestions community members and advocates sent in after the 25%-of-design meeting several years ago and again more recently after realizing that plans were being rushed towards completion, and so far the only 75%-of-design-completion “public meeting” was one called by BU students and the BU Bikes group.

In addition, despite BTD’s role in creating the city’s Complete Streets Guidelines, the original BTD design for the BU Bridge to Packards Corner section is car-centric and lacks the components that most Advocates think are needed: protected bike lanes (cycle tracks), raised crosswalks and wider sidewalks (the plan actually proposes to narrow sidewalks), additional and improved crossings (especially around the Star Market and Babcock T crossing), faster Green Line travel, and traffic-calming narrower lanes and sharper turns (the plan calls for wider car lanes and “softer” turns) – not to mention the cutting down of mature trees and limitations on sidewalk cafes that the design requires.

It is only because of an enormous effort, led by BU’s own students with the support of the city’s transportation Advocacy groups (whose increasingly tight coalition has significantly increased their impact), that BTD is finally bending. Advocacy groups working in support of the students have come up with a united vision of how to include improvements for trolley passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars.   And it appears that the public pressure is forcing BTD to make some improvements, although even those are complicated by lack of coordination with MBTA plans to upgrade and consolidate its Green Line trolley stops in the area to comply with ADA regulations. The good news is that Acting Transportation Department Commissioner Jim Gilooly has publicly stated that “the one decision you can take to the bank is…there will be significant improvement, if not dramatic improvement,” from the original plans – although no one yet knows what he means by that – a concern increased by BTD and the BU Administration’s current touting of another inadequate approach that would simply widen bike lanes rather than create physically separated space.

It’s time for Mayor Walsh to step in. Transportation is too important to be left to squabbling departments. We need a vision that starts from the reality that the economic growth we seek creates population (or at least employment) growth and therefore increased transportation needs – which will inescapably lead to increased car congestion (and pollution) unless we massively increase the availability and attractiveness of other modes. We need good leadership. We need to take advantage of this long-delayed upgrading of Commonwealth Avenue to make it the safe, efficient, multi-modal, Walsh Administration precedent-setting transportation corridor that it needs to be.

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Thanks to Matt Danish for his encyclopedic knowledge about Commonwealth Avenue and to the many people whose anecdotes and comments have shaped my perception of the new Administration. The opiniions are, of course, totally my own.

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Related previous posts:

> FROM BETTER TO WORSE ON COMMONWEALTH AVE: City Leaders Need To Step Up For Their Own Policies

> MOVING BEYOND CAR LEVEL OF SERVICE (LOS): Measurable and Meaningful Criteria for Transportation Investments, Project Designs, and Development Mitigation (revised)

> EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough

> SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

> MODELING POSITIVE CITY-CONSTITUENCY RELATIONS: How Boston’s Transportation Department is Working with the Bicycling Community – and Creating Better Roads

WALK, BIKE, RUN: Unity and Tension In Non-Motorized Alliances

December 8, 2014

It wasn’t that long ago that Boston’s walking, bicycling, and transit advocacy groups saw each other as part of the problem. Faced with the hostile fragmentation, government policy-makers moved slowly or not at all. Boston wasn’t unusual. To the extent that cities had active transportation advocacy groups, the discordance was common.

Today, urban areas (and some states) have two general types of much-more coordinated active-transportation activism. In many cities the dominant group is an all-inclusive alliance of non-motorized movers such as New York-based Transportation Alternatives that combines walkers, joggers, runners, and cyclists. In other cities, mode-specific groups lead the way although they tend to work in partnership with each other. Boston has both: LivableStreets Alliance has, from its inception 10 years ago, seen itself as representing both foot and wheels; the other major advocacy groups – Boston Cyclists Union, MassBike, WalkBoston – maintain their single-mode foci.

Because there have been few walking-oriented advocacy groups around the nation (America Walks, the national coalition, is less than 10 years old), much of the national trend towards inclusivity seems to come from former bicycle-only groups expanding their scope, an evolution that makes enormous political sense since bicyclists are a small but well organized minority while walkers comprise a majority but are generally unorganized. Together they have many times the clout against their common enemy – our society’s car-centric infrastructure, policies, and cultural tendencies. However, whether internalized in one group or as a coalition among several, the emerging multi-modal alliance is not as deep or as tight as it needs to be in order to survive the coming challenges raised by more conservative political leadership at several levels of government. We need, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, to move together or we shall all go nowhere.

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THE DANGERS OF SAFETY: Why Focusing on Car Accidents May Hurt Our Health

November 18, 2014

Everyone officially puts “safety first.” Everyone wants to prevent accidents. Car crashes are treated as lead stories on TV news – the images are horrific and we all fear our vulnerability. But, in fact, our roads are safer than ever. In 1956, when Interstate construction began, the national fatality rate was 6.05 per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). By 2011, the fatality rate had dropped to 0.8 per 100 million VMT on the Interstate and 1.1 (the lowest ever recorded) nationwide, even though about 85% of people including those in metro areas, still get to work by car. (Massachusetts has the nation’s lowest fatality rate, 0.62!)

Studies have shown, and the Traffic Engineering Profession has internalized, that highway accidents go down when there are wide lanes, gentle curves, no sight-line obstructing hills, limited entering/exiting locations with long ramps, no visual distractions other than large and uniform directional signage, and the absence of slower or more vulnerable traffic.   The Interstate is safest when it is “error tolerant” and forgiving of driver distraction. (Other contributors along the same lines: slide-resistant pavement, break-away sign and light poles, and better guardrails.

But the reality is that safety lapses aren’t the biggest transportation-related source of injury. In fact, putting too much emphasis on preventing car crashes can make non-highway streets more dangerous – not only for pedestrians and cyclists but also for car occupants! Car accidents cause half as many deaths and several multiples fewer health problems than transportation-caused air, water, and noise pollution.   The amount of paved land in our cities makes us more vulnerable to climate change, rising temperatures, and floods while housing sprawl makes us less resilient in terms of agriculture and disaster-recovery.   Most subtly, life in and around automobiles changes the way we relate to our neighbors and friends, reducing our collective social capital and our individual life style satisfaction.

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